By Colin Jones

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The vivid story of the creation, renovation, and enduring legacy of the most famous building in France: the palace of Versailles

Nothing represents the glorious and fraught history of France quite like the Palace of Versailles. Made famous by the absolutist king Louis XIV, Versailles became legendary for the splendor of its revels — but then, after the Revolution of 1789, it fell into disrepute as a reminder of royal excess and abuse of power. Subsequent French governments struggled with how to handle the opulent palace and grounds — should the site be memorialized, trivialized, rehabilitated, or even destroyed outright?

Drawing on a new wave of recent research, historian Colin Jones masterfully traces the evolution of Versailles as a space of royal politics and aristocratic pleasures, a building of mythic status, and one of the world’s great tourist destinations. Accessible and compelling, this book is a must-read for all Francophiles.



Garden façade of the Chateau

Ceremonial portrait of Louis XIV

Boiserie with sun motif (2 images)

Gian-Lorenzo Bernini’s bust of Louis XIV

Louis XIII’s Versailles by map-maker Jacques Gomboust

The chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte

A panoramic view of the chateau, 1668

View from the Orangerie

The cour de marbre

The Hall of Mirrors, or Grande Galerie

The Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau

Louis XIV’s final chapel

Maurice Quentin de La Tour’s portrait of Louis XV

The private bedroom of Louis XV

Marie-Antoinette’s thatched and decorative watermill

The Bosquet of the Bains d’Apollon

A diplomatic delegation from Siam

The Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette

Versailles as building site

Official portrait of Louis XVI

Louis-Léopold Boilly’s painting of the Versailles Jeu de Paume

Horace Vernet’s 1846 portrait of King Louis-Philippe

Ceremonies inaugurating the Museum of the History of France

Declaration of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors, 1871

Pierre de Nolhac

Artist William Orpen’s painting of the signing of the Versailles Peace Treaty

German occupation, Vichy era

Advertising poster for Sacha Guitry’s 1954 blockbuster film

The tall windows of the Hall of Mirrors, extending almost the full width of the palace, allowed the king and his courtiers to enjoy spectacular views over Louis XIV’s beloved Lenotrian gardens.


The king had hardly said that there should be a palace than a wondrous palace emerged from the earth… 1

THIS SOUNDS LIKE A FAIRY TALE—AND INDEED the words are those of Charles Perrault, the author of ‘Little Red Riding-Hood’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Puss in Boots’ and many other classic fairy stories. The creation of the Palace of Versailles, to which he was referring, was not quite as instantaneous as a fairy tale might require. But it was not far off. For within a matter of years after 1660, an obscure hunting lodge was transformed into a huge and magnificent set of buildings, commandingly placed in ornate gardens. For posterity, as much as for his contemporaries in France and across Europe Versailles redefined what a royal palace should be.

The claim that all this was the work of a single man—Perrault’s master, in fact—was exaggerated, but it was not mere flattery by a sycophantic courtier. The Bourbon king Louis XIV (ruled 1643–1715), absolute monarch and ruler by divine right, selected the location (of which his father Louis XIII had been fond), conceptualised the kind of palace he wanted built and, for decades—right up to the moment of his death—devoted all his imaginative powers to its realisation. Versailles was the considered brainchild of a king who wanted a monument that could glorify, commemorate, inspire and command. Created on royal orders, constructed and decorated to royal-approved design, the palace was made at a gallop to the measure of a single man, who flaunted himself to his courtiers and his subjects as ‘Louis the Great’.

As the author of fairy tales suggested, this enchanted site functioned through sheer dazzlement. Scale and beauty worked in tandem to compel respectful awe from all who encountered it—courtiers, noblemen, diplomats, travellers, merchants and artisans, and ordinary Frenchmen and women. The greatest artists in French history were tasked to produce an overwhelming, decorative spectacle. The project extended beyond the walls of the palace, for Louis also took an obsessive interest in its gardens; and a thriving new town was conjured out of a tiny adjacent village. Versailles was not just a power-building: it comprised a whole landscape of power. There was a cosmic dimension to it, too: one of the principal allegorical motifs of power woven into the palace’s fabric was the image of Louis as the Sun King, le Roi soleil,* benignly radiating the warmth of his influence over his subjects, as the universe revolved around him.

This powerful ceremonial portrait of Louis XIV was commissioned from the painter Hyacinthe Rigaud in 1701 as a gift to his grandson on his accession to the Spanish throne as Philip V. But the king admired it too much to let it go. Placed in the state apartments on public view it became the most widely known image of ‘Louis the Great’.

The prestige of Versailles was at its zenith after 1682, when Louis moved his whole court to the site. He brought his government bureaucracy in tow as well, effectively turning his back on Paris, the largest and most prestigious city in continental Europe. Versailles was henceforth in substance the French monarchy’s court, capital and seat of government.

Only the king of the greatest and richest power in Europe could have possibly imagined (and resourced) a scheme as majestic, as ambitious and as demanding as Versailles. Its prestige grew exponentially as the eighteenth century unfolded: the palace stimulated fellow monarchs across Europe into emulation; its grounds exemplified the ‘French garden’ style, whose popularity swept Europe; and even the town of Versailles, in effect a Louis-Quatorzian creation with its wide straight roads, provided a model that prefigured Haussmann’s nineteenth-century redevelopment of Paris and, more immediately, inspired Washington in the United States and Portugal’s post-earthquake Lisbon.

This characteristic boiserie incorporates at its centre Louis XIV’s sun motif.

Yet the Versailles project put severe strains on Louis XIV’s treasury and placed his successors, Louis XV (ruled 1715–74) and Louis XVI (ruled 1774–92), in a paradoxical situation. Neither wanted to change what seemed to be the winning Louis-Quatorzian formula for greatness, based on displays of power abroad as well as at home. Yet the task of living up to their predecessor’s standards was challenging, and neither monarch found Louis XIV easy to imitate. To some extent they could only become themselves by diverging in certain ways from the Louis-Quatorzian ideal. This was even more the case for Louis XVI’s queen, Marie Antoinette, who loved the palace’s splendour—but wanted it to be focused mainly on herself. Increasing public unease—echoing a ‘Black Legend’ that went back to Louis XIV’s ruinous wars and his repression of Protestantism—highlighted the glaring contrasts between the luxury of the court and the living conditions of the rest of the nation. By 1789 Versailles had become a national bone of contention rather than a symbol of unity under the Bourbon dynasty.

There were thus already questions in the air about the role of Versailles in the political system prior to the French Revolution, when the French monarchy descended swiftly into a terminal crisis. From the declaration of the First Republic (1792–1804) onwards, it was asked whether a palace complex made to measure for the greatest monarch in early modern Europe could be accommodated within a modernised political system. Could Versailles be ‘de-Bourbonised’? And what exactly was Versailles for in a post-absolutist age? Successive governments—including Napoleon, whose empire (1804–14) followed the demise of the First Republic, and a restored Bourbon monarchy between 1815 and 1830—grappled with this conundrum, but failed to supply a durable answer in what was a highly volatile political atmosphere.

The most substantial response came from King Louis-Philippe (ruled 1830–48), a member of the collateral, Orléans branch of the Bourbon dynasty. His cherished idea was to make the palace a commemorative site for the whole history of France from earliest times to his own ‘July Monarchy’, including republic and empire as well as monarchy. For this purpose, he created an extensive set of historical galleries, dedicated to ‘all the glories of France’. Following Louis-Philippe’s fall from power, the galleries were retained and adapted under the Second Republic (1848–52) and Napoleon III’s Second Empire (1852–70)—and indeed are still in existence today.

Versailles was thus transformed from a place in which history was made into one where history was remembered. Yet two linked flashbulb moments returned the palace briefly but strikingly to centre stage in France’s national story. The first was in 1871, when Louis XIV’s famous Hall of Mirrors was designated as the site for the declaration of the German Empire, following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. For a short period thereafter—up to 1879—Versailles became the seat of national government under the Third Republic (1870–1940). The second moment came forty years later, in 1919, when the treaty that ended the First World War was signed in Versailles; the stage-managed signature of Germany’s defeat took place in the Hall of Mirrors—an ostentatious French riposte to the national humiliation of 1871.

Henceforward, Versailles was an iconic site in the republican as well as the monarchist tradition. The palace was incorporated in the French political mainstream, republicanised and even depoliticised. It has gone on to play a small but significant ceremonial role in the Fourth and Fifth Republics (1946–58; 1958 to the present). The political debates which divided the nation across the nineteenth century have, however, lost their relevance and bite.

The minimal role of Versailles in contemporary politics is most definitely not the reason why up to six or seven million individuals currently visit the palace and its grounds each year. These crowds are drawn by Versailles’s distant past, not its political present. A crucial stimulus for that attraction has been the establishment of a quite different role for the palace, developed since the late nineteenth century by a line of visionary curators. These individuals realised that Versailles in the modern age could never match the historical Versailles for glory and influence, and that the future of the palace therefore lay in its past. But its new role was conceived less as a chauvinistic history lesson on the nationalistic lines sketched by Louis-Philippe, than as a memory site, which allows visitors to experience in some way the greatest moments and cultural achievements of the palace prior to 1789. This change of vocation has involved a combination of preservation, conservation, commercialisation and infectious imagination, so as to allow an extraordinary historical moment and the artistic and cultural achievements associated with it to appear to speak for themselves.

This book thus tells a three-stage story of this remarkable monument. First, how an abandoned location with no history was transformed into a fairy-tale palace which made history (Chapter 1). Second, how Versailles functioned during its age of grandeur (Chapters 2, 3 and 4). And third, how that palace, after struggling to adapt to the modern age, eventually found a vocation as a memory palace and cultural hub (Chapters 5 and 6).

This magnificent bust of Louis XIV was the work of the Italian sculptor and architect Gian-Lorenzo Bernini, who spent 1665 in France at the king’s invitation.

* Although the phrase ‘the Sun King’ or le Roi soleil is very widely used in writing about Louis XIV, it was not in fact common under the ancien régime. Since, as we shall see below, the sun motif was only one among many ascribed to Louis XIV, I have eschewed using it much in this volume.

This image of Louis XIII’s Versailles by the map-maker Jacques Gomboust captures the chateau as it was following embellishment by the king in the early 1630s.



From House of Cards to Fairy-tale Palace


THE GRANDEUR OF VERSAILLES HIDES THE fact that it represented a triumph of Culture over Nature at its least prepossessing. The Duc de Saint-Simon (1675–1755), who lived in the palace as a courtier under Louis XIV for more than a decade, was admittedly no friend of the monarchy. Writing his memoirs many years after the event, he was damning in his judgement on the site of the palace: it was, he said ‘the saddest and most unrewarding of places, with no view, no woods, no water and no earth; for it is all shifting sand and marsh, and the air is consequently bad’.1 From valley slopes, water ran down to a boggy and marshy plain, full of ponds and stretches of stagnant water which made the area unhealthy and malodorous, especially during the hot summer months. It attracted high winds, too, producing a kind of soggy bleakness.

A matter of years before the birth of Louis XIV, Versailles was little more than a geographical expression. It denoted a thinly populated site on the southern flank of the Val de Galie, some twelve miles to the south-west of Paris. The site’s history was as undistinguished as its geography. The discovery in 2006 of a Merovingian cemetery lying to the south of the present-day palace suggests habitation as early as the eighth century, but written records start to mention ‘Versailles’ only from the mid-eleventh century. The place name derives from the Old French versail, meaning a ploughed field. Though dominated by thick woods and low-lying marshland, the medieval landscape did, in fact, include, alongside vines and orchards, open fields where grain was cultivated; this was ground at a windmill located on a mound where Louis XIV would later create his palace.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, the village and its outlying farms probably housed fewer than a couple of hundred individuals, living in modest thatch- and slate-roofed cottages. Any prosperity the area enjoyed derived from the fact that it lay at the intersection of a number of roads, including a major artery linking Paris and Normandy. Versailles saw a lot more cattle passing through to be slaughtered in Paris than it did human beings. Yet by the mid-sixteenth century, wealthy Parisians started investing in property here. One Martial de Loménie, an influential state financier, built a manor house and petitioned the Crown to allow the village to have a weekly market and four annual fairs. Loménie fell victim to the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1572, and his property passed into the hands of Albert de Gondi, a Tuscan by birth who had established himself in the entourage of the French Queen Regent, Catherine de Medici. Gondi was too busy in affairs of state to improve the area, but, along with other members of his family, he continued to buy land here. By the turn of the century, when the kings of France started taking an interest in Versailles, the Gondis were its most powerful family.

King Henry IV passed this way with his army in 1589, en route to besiege the city of Paris towards the end of the French Wars of Religion. Maybe it stuck in his mind, for he returned here to hunt on several occasions from 1604 onwards. Thick woodland made it an ideal spot for hunting game, notably deer, boar, wolves and hare. Situated close to Saint-Germain-en-Laye—where Renaissance kings had established a stylish chateau that became a favoured royal residence—Versailles was a convenient destination for a day-long hunting trip, but Henry IV sometimes passed the night here, too, normally in the Gondi manor house. In 1607 he took his five-year-old son on his first hunting expedition here. The boy came away with ‘a hare, five or six quail and two partridges’2—and, seemingly, an enduring passion for the place.

In 1610, following Henry IV’s assassination, the boy became king. The reign of Louis XIII (ruled 1610–43) was perturbed by religious conflicts, provincial revolts and urban commotions, and then, from 1635, open warfare with Austria and Spain in the Thirty Years War. The king was engaged in a seemingly endless sequence of campaigns across the country, and when he returned to the Île-de-France, his preferred choice of residence was Saint-Germain-en-Laye. In the late 1610s he began to make hunting trips out to Versailles. Shy, ungregarious and mildly misogynistic, Louis seemingly preferred the company of a small group of male hunting cronies to his court at Saint-Germain. In 1623 he confirmed his leisure priorities by deciding to construct a small hunting lodge here on the elevated ground by the village windmill.

This little dwelling, in which he stayed for the first time in 1624, was situated exactly on the spot now occupied by the cour de marbre at the heart of Louis XIV’s palace. But its antecedent was humble and rudimentary: the building housed only around a dozen men and a few followers. Louis fortified it with a moat and a ten-foot-high wall with turrets at the corners, as befitted a kingdom still troubled by provincial feuding. Its style was somewhat archaic: in the capital the fashion for constructing in white Parisian stone was gaining ascendancy, but Louis’s lodge at Versailles was built of red brick, with the occasional Doric column and with black slate roofs. According to Saint-Simon, this gave the place the attributes of a ‘house of cards’3—coloured red, white and black and very fragile-looking. It gained a little by the demolition of the adjacent windmill.

Many at the royal court found the monarch’s passion for Versailles baffling. Apart from abundant sport for hunting, there was very little about the location to recommend it. The shortcomings of the site, which Saint-Simon remarked on so acidly,* were all the more striking when compared with the Louvre and Tuileries Palace complex in Paris and the chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which enjoyed lovely views over the Seine. For the Marquis de Bassompierre, Versailles was a ‘puny chateau’ that not even a country gentleman would take pride in. When Louis reminded a courtier of the demolition of the Versailles windmill, the courtier riposted that while the mill had gone, the wind remained.4 And so did the summer stench. Yet Louis saw the environmental issues less as a hindrance than a challenge. From the late 1620s he started to make his lodge habitable for longer periods than overnight stays. Newly acquired properties in and around the village also allowed him to lay out extensive gardens to the rear.

In 1630 Versailles witnessed the ‘Day of the Dupes’, which saw the thwarting of an attempted factional coup against Louis’s principal minister, Cardinal Richelieu. Thereafter, Louis based himself and his court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which allowed him to escape to Versailles or to other royal residences such as Fontainebleau and Compiègne, while Richelieu was installed as the king’s principal adviser at nearby Rueil. Except in cases of major state business, this arrangement allowed Louis to stay away from Paris and the Louvre, for neither of which he felt much affection.

Further building at Versailles between 1631 and 1634 helped transform the miniscule hunting lodge into something resembling a country house—and even a tourist destination. In 1639 Claude de Varennes’s Le voyage de France urged visitors to the Paris region to pay a visit to Versailles: this was the first of very many guidebook recommendations.5 The king, moreover, was inordinately proud of his new possession. He arranged rendezvous there so that he could show it off to eminent foreign dignitaries. (These included in 1641 the papal envoy Giulio Mazzarini, who, as Cardinal Mazarin, would succeed Richelieu as the king’s principal minister in 1642.) Louis entertained his queen, Anne of Austria, here too and constructed rooms for her—though he never allowed her to spend the night. Even in 1641, when an outbreak of smallpox at Saint-Germain prompted Louis to transfer to Versailles his son and heir, the three-year-old Louis XIV, Anne was ordered to stay away and to take shelter elsewhere. Versailles was a very male preserve.

As a baby, Louis XIV was said to have been terrified of his lugubrious father and screamed whenever he saw him. Despite this early aversion, the child would inherit from his father a deep love of Versailles. This element of affective continuity overlay a disjunction between the two monarchs’ use of the site. Louis XIII valued the small size of Versailles, the privacy it offered away from the court, its highly masculine ambiance and its fortress-like appearance. From the first years of his personal reign, following the death of Mazarin in 1661, however, Louis XIV sought to demilitarise the chateau, to feminise its denizens, to publicise its activities and then, finally, in 1682, massively to increase it in size, by relocating his whole court and government here. He would turn a modest country house into a palace.


Louis XIV waited until he was a young man before turning his mind to Versailles. When his father died in 1643 he was only four years old and power passed into the hands of his mother, Anne of Austria, who ruled as Regent, advised by Cardinal Mazarin. Anne based the court in Paris, preferring the Palais-Royal, the former home of Cardinal Richelieu, to the cramped accommodation of the Louvre. Versailles was effectively abandoned and fell into disrepair for a decade. In 1651, during a quiet period of the turbulent civil wars known as the Fronde (1648–52), Louis made a visit to the site. Once the wars were ended, he started hunting more regularly in its environs. He seems to have seen potential in the semi-abandoned building, ordering its renovation in 1660 and visiting it with his new queen, Marie-Thérèse.* These events took place just before he overthrew Mazarin’s successor, Nicolas Fouquet, and determined to rule directly and without a principal minister.

The chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte constructed between 1658 and 1661 by Louis XIV’s ill-fated finance minister Nicolas Fouquet was in a sense a proto-Versailles. It showcased the talents of painter Charles Le Brun, architect Louis Le Vau and garden designer André Le Nôtre, all of whom became centrally involved in the king’s plans for Versailles.

Louis appears to have been nurturing this political strategy in advance of a celebrated moment in July 1661 when he visited Fouquet in his sumptuous chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte, some 56 kilometres (35 miles) south-east of Paris. Fouquet’s star had risen very high and the sheer splendour of Vaux—its buildings, its gardens and the magnificence of Fouquet’s festive reception for his ruler—must have dazzled Louis. The ‘audacious luxury’ that Louis charged Fouquet with displaying only confirmed suspicions about Fouquet’s probity and ambitions that Louis had already developed. In September 1661 Louis ordered d’Artagnan, the Commander of the King’s Musketeers, to arrest Fouquet and cast him into a prison from which he would never emerge. Louis now held his destiny in his own hands.

If Fouquet’s corruption was no surprise for Louis, what appears to have opened his eyes on his visit to Vaux was the handiwork of the creative triad behind it: architect Louis Le Vau, garden designer André Le Nôtre, and painter Charles Le Brun. Almost straight away, Louis conscripted these men to the project he had developed for Versailles in his mind’s eye. At this stage, his ideas were still more than a little hazy, and Versailles did not yet fully monopolise his attention: he was simultaneously commissioning important new work for the Louvre and the Tuileries, as well as at the Château de Vincennes. Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Louis’s new post-Fouquet ministerial factotum, was also hatching plans to make a magnificently redesigned Louvre the centrepiece of a new Paris that would match ancient Rome for grandeur. Yet it was soon apparent that Louis’s overall plans for Versailles were far bigger and better than his father’s. In addition, with the outstanding creative talents of Le Vau, Le Nôtre and Le Brun at his disposal, Louis wished not simply to emulate his finance minister’s achievement at Vaux-le-Vicomte, but far to surpass it.

Louis XIII had started expanding Crown property around the Versailles chateau, ending the Gondi clan’s local influence. Louis XIV followed this lead, consolidating Bourbon holdings so as to enlarge the park and gardens. By the time that Louis brought his queen back to Versailles in 1663, change was well under way. Yet the queen was increasingly out of the picture at Versailles. From 1662 Louis was escaping here with the numerous mistresses he was to enjoy over the following years. In May 1664 he staged a themed festival in the palace grounds, Les Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée. Ostensibly in honour of his mother, the Regent Anne of Austria, the event also marked a stage in his newly hatched love affair with teenage lady-in-waiting Louise de La Vallière. The three days of festival events, attended by several hundred courtiers, and showcasing gardens in which Le Nôtre was already hard at work, included La Princesse d’Élide, a new comedy-ballet by Molière with music by Jean-Baptiste Lully, tournament jousting, dancing, pageants, firework displays and sumptuous, candle-lit banquets.

The pace of festivity relented in the mid-1660s: the War of Devolution of 1667–8 attracted most of the king’s attention. But military victory only strengthened Louis’s desire to expand and make further embellishments. He celebrated victory with a further lavish fête in 1668, the so-called Grand Divertissement royal, with further contributions from Molière and Lully (which he planned as a homage to another new mistress, Madame de Montespan). Louis XIII’s private hunting lodge was being transformed into a Fun Palace where Louis could ostentatiously take his pleasure.


  • "This is not only a splendid, irresistibly readable introduction to one of the world's most fascinating places, but one of the rare books that gives us the whole history, down to the present day. With a sure hand, Colin Jones traces the evolution of Versailles from grand royal project, to the home of the French court, to the target of revolutionary furies, to the setting for the proclamation of the German Empire and the post-World War I peace conference, to its current role as heritage site and mega-tourist attraction."—David Bell, Princeton University
  • "A captivating narrative about a town and building with humble beginnings that became inextricably linked with the sociopolitical trajectory of France...For history buffs and Francophiles this is an engaging, accessible look at the layers behind one of the most well-known places in France."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Drawing on a burgeoning of recent research and scholarship, as well as memoirs and chronicles, Jones creates an adroit overview of the transformation of Versailles from a rustic hunting lodge to France's most sumptuous palace...A brisk and richly detailed history of a significant place."—Kirkus
  • "A readable guide to Versailles' history."—Booklist

On Sale
Nov 20, 2018
Page Count
224 pages
Basic Books

Colin Jones

About the Author

Colin Jones teaches at Queen Mary University of London and the University of Chicago. He is the author of many books on French history, including Paris: A Biography of a City.

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